How to Support Your Friend Going Through Cancer
“I think I do have PTSD,” I told my friend when I returned to San Francisco after spending a month with my family. It had been the first time I had left the city since my breast cancer diagnosis a year before, and upon my return I started to have flashbacks to my sickest days of chemo. The city felt loud and dangerous. My anxiety spiked. The apartment that had been my refuge during treatments and Covid was suddenly filled with ghosts from my darkest days.
My therapist had mentioned the acronym “PTSD” during one of our visits. Post-traumatic stress disorder. A quick google search confirmed that I did indeed have quite a few of the symptoms: nightmares and flashbacks, strong feelings of guilt, shame, and anger, insomnia, feeling numb, and on.
Cancer is the most traumatic experience I have ever had, and yet, before I was diagnosed it never crossed my mind that it would be considered trauma. Rather than a single event, trauma caused by cancer is an accumulation of several events from hearing the words, “You have cancer,” to painful treatments and operations, to the emotional burden of a life-threatening illness. In fact, nearly 1 in 4 women newly diagnosed with breast cancer report symptoms consistent with PTSD.
By naming and talking about cancer as trauma, people who have been diagnosed can feel validated and begin to heal.
So, how can you support your friend or loved one going through cancer? Like all trauma, everyone processes their experiences with cancer differently, but here’s a few guidelines that helped me.
Use the language they use
Pay attention to the way that your loved one talks about their experience. The cancer world is ripe with war language like “fighting” or “battle,” but for some, those words feel inauthentic or triggering. Some people experiencing cancer refuse to call it their cancer, and would prefer to talk about it as an entity outside of themselves.
Listen closely to how your loved one is describing their experiences, and use the words and structures they use to talk to them about it.
You probably know someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. Avoid comparing their experiences with your loved one who has been diagnosed. Comparisons can feel scary or upsetting to your friend, especially if you mention someone dying from cancer. Comparisons can also be inaccurate since every case is very different, scientifically and situationally.
Every person is going to respond very differently to the traumatic experience of cancer. By avoiding comparisons, you allow your loved one to process their experiences outside of past stories you may be familiar with.
Respect their boundaries
Cancer can be a vulnerable and difficult topic to talk about. It can stir up feelings of despair, overwhelm, and stress. Pay attention to your loved one’s boundaries that are communicated both verbally or nonverbally. Respect their limits. Your loved one does not owe you a conversation about their cancer experience. If they say or show you a boundary, offer to talk about something not related to cancer. On the other hand, talking about their experience may also allow your loved one to feel connected to you. Allow them to steer the conversation.
While talking about their cancer experience may be therapeutic for some, it may be unwanted for others. Keep in mind that these boundaries may shift day to day or moment to moment.
The most important thing you can do is be there for your loved one. This diagnosis is most likely difficult for you as well, so process your own feelings and emotions before you see or talk to them. But don’t disappear. Their diagnosis has changed them, but they are still the same person you love. Be there for them in all the ways you have been in the past, and maybe even a few new ways that may help them. Showing up for them now may include allowing them to process feelings like grief, anger, and sadness in ways that may be new for your relationship.
Each person is different, and will need different ways to process. But the one thing that we all need is support.
The more we acknowledge and talk about cancer as life-altering trauma, the more we can work towards understanding and healing.
To read Krystie’s story What Dealing With PTSD and Breast Cancer Really Feels Like, click here.
Kira is a designer, writer, and survivor. She shares her experience with cancer to inspire and empower others to embrace their own stories. Kira lives with her furry best friend, Luna, in Portland, Oregon where she spends her time chasing waterfalls and navigating survivorship. You can find her on Instagram @kirahodgson